Must We Fight China? An Alternative to the Establishment's Defeatism

The foreign policy establishment underestimated China for years. Now it is panicking at China's growing power. Not since British contempt for the Japanese turned into defeatism at Singapore in 1942 has Western opinion of an Asian rival turned around so quickly. In the Fall 2017 Claremont Review of Books, I review Graham Allison's influential new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Allison makes the case for appeasement. If you want peace, I counter, prepare for war. That means restoring America's technological supremacy. Excerpts from my review are below. The complete review can be found at Claremont Review of Books.

Graham Allison’s much-heralded new book warns that China’s challenge to American strategic dominance sets us on a path to war. He calls this peril the “Thucydides Trap,” because he claims that it is similar to other great-power conflicts in history, above all Athens’ challenge to Sparta before the Peloponnesian War in 431-404 B.C. Expanding on a 2015 Atlantic essay admonishing American planners to avert a looming war with China, Destined for War urges Americans to accept China as a great power.

A professor and outgoing director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, Allison can’t be faulted for timing. In July and August of this year, North Korea’s tests of nuclear-capable missiles with range sufficient to strike American territory put the China problem at the top of our strategic agenda: apart from a military confrontation no one wants, America seems to have no alternative but to ask China to use its good offices to restrain North Korea. As a result, China has more influence in matters that bear on vital American interests. In an August 2017 Wall Street Journal essay that drew public praise from National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Henry Kissinger argued for strategic cooperation with China in the Korean peninsula. McMaster distributed a dozen copies of Allison’s book to senior National Security Council staff earlier this year.

The Thucydides Trap thus demarcates a crucial turn in the thinking of America’s foreign policy Establishment. Through most of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, conventional thinking held that America would promulgate the liberal international order in the Middle East and elsewhere, while China would struggle with the internal weaknesses inherent in a dictatorial regime. Allison’s book offers a different and darker vision: He argues, correctly in my view, that China’s economy will continue to grow in breadth and depth to challenge America, and concludes, wrongly in my view, that America can do nothing except to accommodate the rising Asian superpower.

America can make reasonable concessions to certain Chinese security concerns, to be sure. But China and the United States compete in a global economy where digital technology has digital outcomes. China now dominates high-tech electrical manufacturing, while America’s manufacturing sector is imploding. Not too long from now this trend will have grave national security implications for the United States, and become a source of strategic instability. The issue is not whether America allows China more power in the South China Sea, for example, but whether the migration of manufacturing out of the United States will lead to a fundamental change in the great power relationship—comparable, perhaps, to America’s technological superiority over the Soviet Union during the last years of communism.